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Swing when you're winning: Thai golf stars blaze path for youngsters

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Bangkok (AFP)

Flashing luxury sports cars and a bejewelled watch, Kiradech Aphibarnrat is one of several rising golf stars drawing Thailand's youngsters to the sport with the lure of a big pay-off.

Nicknamed "Pro Arm" in the local press, Kiradech's rotund physique, flamboyant character and habit of vaping on the course has earned comparisons with John Daly, the American known for lighting up a cigarette between holes.

The 30-year-old is also the first Thai golfer to make the PGA tour and has since made at least $2.3 million in winnings and sponsorships.

"I work hard, I get a good result and I get a present. I think that's fair," the 30-year-old tells AFP, showing off his silver Ferrari and a Ducati motorcycle.

"And it might inspire a kid," he adds, smiling.

With its sunny weather, resort hotels and sprawling courses, Thailand has long served as a prime golfing destination.

But Thais only recently staked a claim at the highest levels of competition, joining players from more established Asian golfing countries such as South Korea and Japan.

Leading players have in turn inspired a new wave of young players, whose parents see the sport as a form of upward mobility.

"If I play well, I can get rich like Pro Arm," 10-year-old Natapat Thongchitpakdee tells AFP as he practises swings at a driving range owned by Kiradech.

Leading the change alongside Kiradech are Jazz Janewattananond -- a fast-rising star who turned pro in 2010 -- and the celebrated Jutanugarn sisters Ariya and Moriya.

A biopic focusing on Ariya's rise debuted in Thai cinemas two months ago.

She climbed to world number one in 2017 and in August was valued at $5.3 million, while Forbes named her the 15th richest female athlete in the world this year.

The 23-year-old wunderkind struck a modest tone in comments to AFP, saying she was only one of "many successful golfers from Thailand".

- Rags to riches -

Yet, Ariya's influence on young players is undeniable.

Teen newcomer Atthaya Thitikul says the Jutanugarn sisters are her heroes.

"They've inspired me and a lot of Thai juniors," the 16-year-old told AFP.

Atthaya was the youngest golfer ever to win a professional tournament in 2017. She plans to go pro next year and is poised to get rich if she succeeds.

She says aspiring golfers "do it to make their dreams become reality -- it's not about the money."

But whether for love or money, the financial resources needed to get started in the sport are a barrier to many youngsters.

That prompted Thongchai Jaidee to set up a golf foundation in his home province to coax kids from lower-income families into the sport.

In terms of popularity, his sport "can't beat football and boxing... but if you play well at golf, you could make good money," he tells AFP by phone from England ahead of a tournament in Surrey.

"It could translate to something."

The 49-year-old is one Thai golfer living the dream -- an ex-army man who went pro at 30, he lived out a rags-to-riches story as he racked up wins on the Asian Tour.

One figure looms large for every local player -- golfing legend Tiger Woods, whose mother is Thai.

He has won several tournaments in her home country and spoken about the importance of his Asian heritage.

"I just thought he was so cool," says 12-year-old junior golfer Poomrapee "Topgun" Kaewpiboon, who won the World Youth Championship in June.

As for the current crop of Thai players, the youngster aims even higher.

"I would do much better than them," he says.

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